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travel photography tips

15 Tips to take better travel photos

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take better photos

Let’s jump right in with these tips to take better travel photos.

1. Get Comfortable

Get comfortable or at least familiar with your camera before you go on your trip so that when the opportunities arise you can catch them forever instead of trying to remember how to use a function of your camera (phone or otherwise). 

2. Walk around and explore

Walk around and explore- seems fairly self explanatory. Leave the comfort of your all inclusive compound and wear some tread off of your shoes. It allows you to find situations and photos of locals that are not on tours. DOn’t be afraid to get lost.

Getting lost is frequently the best way to get to know your surroundings. If you only know the straight route to and from then you miss all the amazing stuff happening everywhere else. It also helps you not get lost later.

3. Have a Camera with you

Always have a camera with you. You can’t photograph anything without a camera of some kind and if it’s in a bag or pocket it can capture those spontaneous moments that pop up and disappear just as fast. 

4. The rule of thirds

This isn’t the only compositional rule but it is one of the most useful and easiest to learn. The easiest way is to turn the grid on in your camera. All phones with cameras (almost all phones) and most (if not all) modern digital cameras have a setting that allows you to turn on or off a grid. That is your rule of thirds for dummies 🙂 Place your subject along one of the verticals and take the picture.

Voila! More interesting composition.

Do it until you don’t need the grid any more. For closer portraits try to put the subjects eyes on the upper horizontal line. Farther back then try to get your subjects head at one of the intersections.

If you are shooting landscapes then try putting the horizon on either (i’d try both just not at the same time) of the horizontal lines.

Lastly, try and make sure your subject (if a person) isn’t looking out of the frame on the side that they are on. That’s just a general rule. There are times to break it but not many. Master the rules before you break them. Breaking them is more fun then.

5. Change perspectives

Once you take that first amazing shot from eye level that every other person ever to see the same sight has taken (because it’s so cool you had too) do something different. Crouch down, Walk around. Climb up on something.

Maybe there is a place up high you can get to to shoot from a different vantage point. Photograph people photographing it. If a million tourists are standing in the way of the perfect shot then make a different shot using them as props. To paraphrase the famous song by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. If you can’t take the photo you love then love the photo you can take. Sometimes it’s a better photo anyway.

6. Shoot a lot

I used to shoot when film wasn’t a choice but the only choice. If you shoot too much you run out (not to mention you had to pay to develop and make prints). Now digital allows you to take WAY more with the only drawback being you have to wade through many more bad photos to find the gems (pros take bad photos too but we edit better and don’t show our crappy ones). The more you shoot the more likely you are to at least stumble on a good photo if you ignore everything else I write).

Remember though that they are not all art. Look through, choose wisely and you will be a photo rockstar to your friends. Hell you could inadvertently end up a professional.

7. Consider time of day

The best shots are usually in the morning or late afternoon/sunset. This is for a few reasons. First obviously is the light is the prettiest at those times. Golden colored with long shadows.

The stuff of easy and comfortable photo dreams. Less obvious is that depending on where in the world you are It gets really uncomfortable in the mid day summer heat and you find fewer people out and the ones who are really aren’t as happy as could be.

This is of course why some countries have extended breaks in the day and work latter into the evening. If you wake early and walk the streets before the bustle, you can see the towns and cities come to life before your camera’s eye. Lots to document and remember that most will never witness. The action just continues to increase as people head to work, open shops, buy from vendors and just live. The same happens in reverse in the later hours. Have your camera ready and witness.

8. Be friendly and respectful.

Learn how to say “Hello” and “May I take your photo” in the local language if you intend to shoot portraits of the local people. By portraits I mean just that. Isolating a person and making a photograph where he/she is the only subject. If you are taking a photo of a scene that includes a lot of people doing their “thing” then shoot away. You can’t ask everyone and in fairness no one is really being bothered or objectified.

If you are going to isolate someone it is just common courtesy to ask their permission. Some will say no and that’s that. Many though will feel flattered or just understanding even if they may be a bit embarrassed.

Depending on where you are they may even ask for compensation. If they do ask it’s up to you. Don’t photograph them though if you don’t pay. It’s akin to stealing. Keep in mind how you would feel if you were just going about your day and tourist after tourist, day in and day out, year after year kept walking up and taking photos of you and your friends without asking, as if you were on exhibition.

I have traveled extensively and I observe other travelers as much as I do the locals. I can tell you from first hand observation and lot’s of reflection that most tourists don’t think about this at all. Not even a little bit. Don’t be them. This has gotten past tip and into lesson because I think it’s VERY important 🙂

9. Show a sense of place

When taking a photo of family or friends make sure to leave room for a sense of the place. If you fill your frame with so much of them that you can’t see where they are then you may as well be photographing them in their back yard or anywhere else in the world. I’m not saying to never do, just that it won’t have any particular meaning beyond a nice portrait of a person without context.

Conversely, don’t move so far away that they are just a dot in the frame that could be anyone. Meaningful environmental portraits are a balancing act. Enough scene to know what and where while having enough of your subject to be immediately identifiable.   

10. Travel light

Don’t bring every piece of gear you own/travel light. This one is easier said than done but will make you happier and better at what you do if you take it to heart.

The more options you give yourself when traveling will lead to thinking too much about which option to take. That means fewer opportunities to actually just shoot and enjoy.

Melissa and I will usually take just one camera each and one lens each (sometimes a third specialty lens to share but not always). My most used travel camera has been my Fuji X100s. It’s small, lightweight, has a fixed 23mm lens and is capable of outstanding images. While this would seem limiting (and it can be) it makes me get more involved in my photography.

Zooming requires me to walk into the scene and get personal or walk back to include more. I anticipate. I am patient. I have to be. What I don’t have to do is change lenses and miss shots. Think about what I left in the room. Think about what I wish I had left in the room or lastly, get dust in the camera from changing lenses in a hurry.

Get good with what you have. Learn the crap out of one lens at a time so that in the future you know exactly what each lens is best for and how to get the most out of everything. You’ll find you need less than you thought you did and your bank account will thank you for it.

11. Charge your batteries

Do I even have to mention this? Yes. I do. Make sure your batteries are charged before you leave on your trip and make sure they are charged/charging each night before you go to bed.

You don’t want to wake up and realize you don’t have enough battery power to get you through the day and you don’t want to have to wait in the room while recharging. It’s incredibly easy to mess this up so don’t. Make it a habit and you will be thankful.

12. Back up your photos nightly

This isn’t as intuitive as the battery tip but it’s pretty handy and will help avoid tragedy (photographically speaking). If you backup the days photos every night then you not only get to review the days photo haul but you are less likely to loose images due to accidental card formatting. You also guarantee that you don’t run out of card space due to all your images staying on the card.

Lastly, and a real possibility, is that if your card fails then you don’t loose everything. Seriously, that can happen. I know people it has happened to. I even had a card fail on a trip once but I was lucky that it was a clean card and that it happened very early on so I lost almost nothing. Part was luck (happening early) one part was experience (backing up regularly) and the outcome was the best possible for the situation. 

13. Photograph everything

You can’t take too many photographs but you can certainly take too few. Photograph your food (more common these days), photograph people walking in the streets. Photograph people sitting around in groups doing things that are even obvious to you. Photograph stray animals as well as business people. It’s all unique and common at the same time.

With repeated travel and a camera you can’t help but notice the similarities all people share as well as the difference we all have due to our cultures and surroundings (which of course influences cultures of course).

14. Patience

It’s a virtue or so I’m told. It is a definite benefit to a photographer and that is what you are even if you don’t think so. You may be less invested in it than some and more than others. Patience helps. Patience in waiting for a scene to develop or evolve can take an OK picture of a place and elevate it into a poignant cultural study. A moving masterpiece.

Many if not most of the greatest photos ever taken were the result of patience. That doesn’t just mean waiting and watching but also moving around the scene and creating more photographs from different perspectives. I can think of countless examples of classic photographs that benefited from this but I’ll leave that for another post. For now I am sure you get the point.

15. Put the camera down and enjoy the experience

This may seem counter intuitive and in direct conflict with some of the previous tips but it isn’t. It really is it’s own thing. Sometimes we get so caught up in trying to make a photograph that will wow us and our friends that we forget to just live in the moment. Some things can’t be appreciated in a photograph as well as in a memory.

Seeing it on a screen while it is happening is not at all the same as just fully soaking in the real experience. My favorite illustration of the point requires sitting through an entire movie that I highly recommend. It’s called “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”. It was made in 2013 and stars Ben Stiller. The entire premise of the movie is this point and it does it beautifully. You are welcome.

If you put these tips to work, you will immediately take better travel photos.

>>Read a little more on our philosophy regarding photographing people while traveling >>

There are so many great places to keep me inspired and wanting to travel – two are my favorite travel magazines: Conde Nast Traveler and Afar

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